History 47 

# 16 Primitivism and Relativism: Margaret Mead and the Triumph of "Culture"

3/19/98 Will intersperse with clips from with 2 versions of video "Margaret Mead: Observer Observed" Version 1 = rough cut. Version2 is final for airing on PBS or other (copy on Reserve)
* controversies over Mead highlight problems concerning her career
VIDEO CLIP: Version 2 Opening for celebrity
Although Coming of Age in Samoa made her a national icon, the complexity of MM can be seen in defenses and attacks during and after her life. Focus on three issues:
1. Feminism
a. on one hand provided a model of successful career and public figure for a woman, and helped liberate women from shackles of Victorianism.
b. on the other Friedan, Feminine Mystique (1961) ,"The Functional Freeze, The Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead" attacked implications of her later work for women. Argued that "how is" became "how should be." Although not specifically targeting Mead, Barbara Ehrenreich in Hearts of Men asks whether the social liberation (and sexual) was necessary a good thing for women.
2. Cultural tolerance/relativism
a. along with Boas, Benedict at al she celebrated for preaching tolerance, and learning from culture previously thought "inferior"
b. on the other, a "rap" on race with James Baldwin proved to be acrimonious and raced issues of how far she had gone on this issue; while in the 1980s Freeman, Derek. Margaret Mead and Samoa : the making and unmaking of an anthropological myth ( Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1983) caused a fuss that reached TV and national magazines. SEE VIDEO CLIP Version 2. Two related charges:
a. Methodology.
b. Underlying assumptions, and contributions to "cultural determinism"
* Bloom Closing the American Mind turned the later into an attack on Mead as being behind the "closing" of American mind:
p. 33. "Sexual Adventurers like Margaret Mead and others who found American too narrow told us that not only must we know other Cultures and learn to respect them, but we could also profit from them. We could follow their lead and loosen up., liberating ourselves from the opinion that our taboos are anything other than social constraints. We could go to the bazaar of cultures and find reinforcement for inclinations that are repressed by puritanical guilt feelings. All such teachers of openness had either no interest in or were openly actively hostile to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution."
3. Public role of anthropology/social science
a. helped popularize and gain respect for professional social science during the "classic" period of American anthropology and continued to be a champion of "science" as liberating humankind until her death.
b. but also finally drew attacks of leftist scholars who faulted her as an example of the complicity of social science in amoral or immoral activities regarding public policy, especially in providing propaganda during WW2 in And Keep your Powder Dry.
**class will consider three issues of (a) relation to feminism, in particular as representative of postfeminist generation of women born ca, 1900 who came of age in the period between the world wars; (b) Coming of Age in Samoa, especially selection in Hollinger reader' and (c) the "triumph" of the culture idea as discussed in Degler, In Search of Human Nature. In conclusion look again at charges of her critics (as time allows)
I. Margaret Mead (1903-1978). Background and Education
*look at Mead's formative years throws light on the feminist issue and the issue of "cultural determinism"
A. Mead part of a generation of women social scientists sometimes called the "post-feminist generation," that is taking advantage of victories of previous era without being active in feminist protest, and sometimes indifferent to pioneers of prewar feminism whom they saw as stiff-necked puritans. (see Rosenberg Beyond Separate Spheres).
B. Mead's youth reveals some of the formative experiences of this generation.
1. family was nomadic academics (lived briefly in Swarthmore).
a. father was professor at Wharton school (Edward Mead)
i originally settles in Hammonton New Jersey because of large ethnically diverse population (Italians) whom mother wished to study. (Rosenberg p. 211)
ii. terribly insecure as first generation academic professional. Esp. of "feminization" since he thought of intellectual life as feminine: possibly also explains why Mead would turn to "professionalization: with such gusto.
b. Emily Fogg: grew up in Chicago. Went to University of Chi in 1897, excited by courses with Veblen among others. But the m married mead and never really finished her work (had 5 children, 4 of whom she reared to maturity).
i. Margaret judged what seemed the futility of many of the causes that absorbed her mother
*Rosenberg suggests that this strengthened her drive to "professionalize." That is, like Ogburn and the "scientistic" sociologists she was disillusioned with progressive reform as manifested in her mother's career.
ii. also, possibly in reaction to the # children her mother had, (but also new birth control methods popularized ca. 1915, the years of Margaret Sanger's crusade) she mastered the mechanics of sex and contraception well before she married.
*Jane Howard, Margaret Mead says she apparently lied to her first husband about her inability to have children.
C. Early education
1.. Depauw
2. Columbia
3. Relation with Ruth Benedict
4. equally important were the # of things she was reacting against in these years, esp. extremes of scientism in IQ testing etc.
D. Graduate Study: Boas and the Boasian school.
II. Coming of Age in Samoa
*following based on Introd. ch. 10, and Ch 14 (portion of later excerpted in Hollinger)
1. Positions herself among competing social science models
a. Hall Adolescence
b. behaviorists
c. Freudians
i. relation to behaviorism seems complicated since not really wanting to distinguish. See reference to laboratory model? Why? Is "cultural" idea a variant of "behaviorism"? If so, why do some people choose over behaviorism?
ii. has implications for debate with Freeman in that both apply a positivistic conception of science, that is, he is not proposing a radical new method. Most of debate is over whether she ignored things because didn't speak language, didn't live with natives, poorly trained. See appendix for miscellaneous notes toward a reassessment of these issues
iii. Modern anthropologists (Rappaport) reply by denying CAS should be judged this way: rather see as part of an evolving America "myth"
B. CULTURE. Various dimensions as raised in the Freeman attack
1. does seem to preserve cultural hierarchy, contra implications of "cultures" as self-contained, and hence unjudgeable by others (discuss with reference to current debate: Salmon Rushdie, clitoretomies etc.)
"complicated civilization like those of Europe"
"higher civilizations of the east"
"A primitive people...much less elaborate problem"
"simpler civilization of Samoa"
2. these judgments in turn betray her own cultural conditioning
p. re Greece Rome
p. 92 "taught not to pass a knife blade first"
p. 93 grammar concerns.
4. is she a "cultural determinist" (analysis of ch. 14, in H&C reader)
i. what is the problem
ii. what is her goal. Is "change" possible"
Explanation?:relation to "consumer" society?
III. Triumph of culture? Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)
 A. Background. review of early chapters
1. Arguing that the conventional portrait of late 19th century "social Darwinism" distorts the initial impact of Darwinian ideas on social theory, he notes that the biologist's work nonetheless left "openings" for racist and sexist interpretations
Comment (RCB) : here Degler is moderate to a fault. Although he downgrades late 19th century "social Darwinism" (a defense of social and economic hierarchy) to a benign "social Spencerianism," he continues to assume that the phrase literally and accurately describes social theorists who misuse Darwinism instead of examining the ways in which the epithet has been a perennial weapon in efforts to dampen any search for humanity's biological roots, and thus exploring new categories for analysis.
2. flourished in the opening decades of the 20th century in eugenics etc.
B. By the 1920s, this "Darwinian imperative" came under fire:
1. from Franz Boas and his disciples in cultural anthropology
2. from sociologists such as William I. Thomas
3. and from behaviorists who launched their own attack on "instinct" theory.
*note: sees convergence of all three working together
C. Their triumph was remarkably rapid
1. By the 1920s, racist arguments rooted in biology were already in retreat, soon followed by demeaning accounts of sex differences.
2. reasons:
a. not to new evidence
*RCB comment. His insistence that factors other than evidence (sometimes tightened to "experimental evidence" [p. 139]) shaped the embrace and rejection of Darwinism for almost a century leaves one wondering how he can so confidently treat the findings of sociobiology as "new knowledge" [p. 232], and believe that abuse of biology is a thing of the past.
b. the dynamics of professionalization
*comment: He acknowledges that the drive to differentiate the social scientists from their biologist forebears may have been a factor in promoting the culture concept, but dismisses it as an explanation on the dubious ground that Boas (and others, by extension) provide in their writings "little direct evidence" (p. 82) of professional ambition as a motive. I feel he dismisses professionalization out of hand. (Expand re: Boas and the professionalization of anthropology).
c. the intellectual curiosity, social origins, and above all, the ideological commitments of participants.
D. Although the victory appeared complete by the early 1940s, doubts were already surfacing, ironically, even in the writings of Margaret Mead, Alfred Kroeber and other champions of the culture concept.
E. Speaking to these accumulated doubts, the sociobiology of E.O. Wilson and others from the 1970s onward provided a wealth of new (and for Degler, convincing) evidence of the importance of biology for understanding human affairs.
1. summarizes in concluding chapters on the literature of incest avoidance, dominance/submission, reproductive success, and the biosocial origins of parenting.
2. propelled by a liberal agenda (not the "conservatism" of the 1970s and 1980s, as sometimes charged), this Darwinian "revival," he concludes, offers a biological social theory, neither racist nor sexist, that enhances rather than diminishes our humanity.
V. Mead and WWII (see article by Virginia Yans)

VI. Mead's Later career
*working on documentary on MM life seemed that the three major themes worked out ironically in her later career.:
(1) race diversity in the "rap" on race with James Baldwin in the late 1960s through Bloom's attack in the Closing American mind;
(2) gender/women in the Friedan attack in The Feminine Mystique, and Mead's ambiguous support of feminism in her final years; and
(3) her belief in anthropology as a "science" in the Freeman controversy. VIDEO Version 2.

Written by Robert Bannister, for classroom use in History 47, Swarthmore College 1/98. May be reproduced in whole or part for educational purposes, but not copied or distributed for profit.